Richard Lischer, an inexperienced 28-year-old Lutheran pastor with a Ph.D. from the University of London, pulls into the small town of New Cana in rural Illinois and is singularly unimpressed with the place. The smallest and most isolated parish in the district is to be his first congregation. Reeling with anger and disappointment, he notes: "I resented the bureaucrats who had misfiled my gifts, misjudged my obvious promise, and were about to place me in rural confinement." These words convey the candor in Lischer's memoir but do not convey skills as an entertaining storyteller.

The farmers in New Cana who are elders in the church immediately sense the new pastor's feelings that he's something special. They don't overwhelm him with praise or adulation. Lischer's not perfect; he forgets communion wafers for the dying man at the hospital. And his first sermons are filled with scholarly and literary references — ones that are meaningless to a congregation where 90 percent of the adults did not graduate from high school. Lischer imagines them saying behind their blank faces as he preaches, "We dare you to move us. Just try it."

Open Secrets spins out the daily rounds of this Lutheran minister as he meets with resistance to any changes he wants to make. He bangs heads with conservative members of the church and learns that change only comes in tiny baby steps.

Discovering that he's nothing special is a humbling experience for Lischer. An old Protestant axiom has it: "It's not a question of whether you are a sinner or not, but only a question of your sin." In the author's case, the congregation helps round off the rough edges of his pride. On these lively pages, sin, pettiness, gossip, and betrayal are kissin' cousins to faith, hope, and charity.